The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was an absolute staple during it’s time. It gave us the format for what we now know as the “late night talk show.” However, although the Johnny Carson show was iconic in the sense, it was also incredibly controversial. From his jokes on his show, to the scandal in his personal life, it was clear to see Carson wasn’t perfect. Today, we see so much controversy and scandal in a celebrities life that we’ve become accustomed to it. But back then, Carson would often make jokes at the expense of fellow celebrities. Because of this, there were many rumors and controversies that circled the show, and some of the disputes and problems in Carson’s personal life became public knowledge. Here are some of the scandals that surrounded Carson that will probably shock you.
Everyone has personal life issues, but it seems that Carson had a bit more than normal. Whether it be his friends, family or lovers, he seemed to struggle constantly with his personal relationships. He blamed this on his “terrible, heartless mother” Ruth. When asked about his mom he could only say, “She’s the toughest son of a bitch of them all. There is no goddamn way to please that woman. She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she me up!” In fact, when she passed, he didn’t even attend her funeral. The only thing he could say was, “The wicked witch is dead.”
Carson is no saint, and he was known for treating those around him with disrespect and cruelty. This was true even when he married his new wife. One of Carson’s nastiest displays of his attitude was shown when he publicly humiliated his wife on their honeymoon. In 1987, after Carson married Alexi Maas (his fourth wife), the couple travel to Italy for a yacht trip as their honeymoon. It’s said that Carson fell into a bad mood and decided to take it out on his new wife. At some point he told her in front of a group of people, “We’ve been married for three weeks. If you say something like that again, this marriage won’t last another three weeks.” Guess we can see why this was his fourth marriage!
Johnny Carson has three sons from his first marriage, and he never had any other children with his other wives. His one son, Rick Carson, struggled heavily with mental health issues. During this time it was very taboo to discuss mental illness, and when he was committed to a mental hospital, Johnny refused to ever see him. On June 21, 1991, Rick was driving his car near the scenic coastal town of Morro Bay, California, when it fell 125 feet down an embankment. He was killed instantly. Although Johnny paid tribute to his son on the show it was clear that Johnny never got to fix the relationship with his son.
Along with his nasty attitude, Johnny Carson was also known for his drinking. In October 1987, NBC decided to throw him a 25th-anniversary party. The party took place aboard the Queen Mary, and Carson’s son Rick, (who also had a severe drinking problem), was among the guests. Rick was extremely drunk, and when Johnny went to check on him, they got into a screaming argument. Keep in mind that amongst the guest were network executives, media, and Carson’s friends and family too. Witnesses claim that Carson was the aggressor after he lost his temper and began yelling. Johnny at one point even pulled his fist back like he was about to hit him until a guest stepped in and pulled him away.
Time To Put Down The Bottle
When it came to his addiction, Carson wasn’t in denial. In fact, he was completely aware of his addiction and began making jokes about it. In a 1977 interview with 60 Minutes, Carson admitted there was a time when he used to drink, and he didn’t handle it well. He said, “I don’t handle alcohol well at all, no. Really don’t.”
Johnny and Joanne
One of the most famous relationships Johnny Carson took part in was with second wife, Joanne Copeland. Copeland was a stewardess for Pan American World Airways. She went on her first date with Carson in 1960, when he was working as the host of a game show, Who Do You Trust? After marrying him, Copeland had an affair with famous athlete, Frank Gifford, while Johnny himself had multiple infidelities. The nine year marriage ended in 1972, and the details of it were put on public display. Despite the negativity that surrounded the marriage and the divorce, she was still dedicated to seeing him succeed and assisting his professional career.
In 2013, Johnny Carson’s former lawyer, Henry Bushkin, decided to write a tell-all book about Johnny Carson. Within this book, he went into detail about Joanne’s affair with Frank Gifford. Henry revealed that instead of asking for a divorce like Carson stated, he instead went to their apartment and began sobbing to her while wearing a revolver on his hip. It was never revealed why or how he obtained the gun. Frank Gifford went not to marry Kathie Lee Gifford, who even joked about the rumors on The Today Show. When Kathie asked her husband if there was truth to these rumors he simply responded with “maybe”, or “he couldn’t remember”.
Playboy and His Playboy Model
Like many of the men who were in show business, Carson could pick and choose his women. He was also known as a relentless womanizer. While he was in the midst of his divorce proceedings with his second wife, Joanne, he was entertaining company with a Playboy model named Angel Tompkins. Although he was warned that he was jeopardizing any settlement if his wife’s lawyer found out, he still carried on with his infidelity. During his third marriage, his wife Joanna knew of his infidelity. He would often send her excessive and expensive gifts like an apartment at The Pierre, a Rolls-Royce Corniche, and diamonds to compensate for his unfaithfulness.
Bringing Up Weight
Carson was no stranger to insensitive jokes. In fact, he didn’t mind putting someone’s weight on display in front of millions on national television. Veteran NBC actor Raymond Burr was often at the end of Carson’s fat jokes. He eventually became incredibly angry about them and he refused to appear on the show. However, he did appear twice in 1968 and 1976.
War Of Words
Tom Snyder was The Tomorrow Show host whose show followers Carson’s on NBC. It was no secret that Carson hated Tom Snyder and he thought of him as a no-talent bore. Snyder gained national fame as the host of his daily show until it ended. He was then offered a new show: The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder. One night while Carson was out for drinks at popular LA eatery Chasen’s, he became incredibly violent after two glasses of wine and began ranting about how much he hated him. It’s very obvious that a public rant such as this, is incredibly unprofessional.
John and Joan
When former guest hosts Joan Rivers and John Davidson got their own talk shows, Carson became furious. He perceived this as disloyalty because their shows were in direct competition with his show. River’s show was on FOX and her time slot competed with Carson’s throughout 1986-1987. Her show was later cancelled but she mentioned that Carson never spoke to her again even though they had been so close in the past. However, the longstanding feud between the two wasn’t the only scandal that surrounded the two. Joan Rivers mentions in her book that the two had an affair and some point during her marriage to Edgar Rosenberg. Joan and Edgar were married for twenty-two years and she mentions that she was not always faithful during her marriage. This brings up questions as to whether Johnny’s decision of banning Joan from the show had more to do with her “loyalty” to him or their sexual liaison. Her husband, Edgar eventually committed suicide devastating both his daughter Melissa, and Joan.
Toilet Paper Shortage
In December 1973, Carson made a joke about an alleged shortage of toilet paper. This immediately sent his viewers into a panic, and this is how buying and hoarding of toiler paper ensued across the U.S. What was the result of this one joke? His audience emptied stores, causing an ACTUAL shortage of toilet paper that lasted for week.s. Stores and manufacturers had to ration supplies and wait it out until the panic ended. He later apologized for causing this incident.
A portable toilet company wanted to use the phrase, “Here’s Johnny”, for their portable toilets. Of course, this started a huge legal issue seeing as that was the phrase used to introduce Johnny Carson on his show. In 1977, he successfully sued a manufacturer of the toilets and it was ruled that they could not use the phrase. Carson stated he had a right of publicity in that phrase, and the courts agreed. To this day, the company is still trying to reclaim the phrase.
Mr. Carson’s Unfriendly Neighbor
Johnny Carson was never one to shy away from talking smack about other shows. In fact, he even took shots at the ‘Neighborhood’ with Mr. Rogers. Carson ran a skit on his show where he would dress up like Mr. Rogers, and encourage kids to steal from their parents so his show could continue. Fred Rogers was obviously not impressed with this skit seeing that his show was all about love and kindness, and taking care of your neighbors. Carson later had to apologize to Rogers for making fun of him.
His Least Favorite Guest
Seeing that Carson was a late night talk show host, he obviously had many many guests. He also had his favorites and his least favorites. His least favorite? Bob Hope. Bob Hope was another American television icon, and so he came to show armed with scripted jokes. Carson criticized this about Hope and claimed that he would rarely engage in any organic and genuine conversation. Carson’s former co-head writer, Andrew Nicholls said, “There was nothing spontaneous about Hope. He was a guy who relied on his writers for every topic. Johnny was very quick on his feet. Very well read. He was a guy who learned Swahili, learned Russian, learned astronomy. He appreciated people who he felt engaged with the real world. There was nothing to talk to Bob about.” As the years went on, Hope began to lose his hearing and his eyesight. Hope’s guest appearances then became much more frustrating for Carson, since he had trouble picking up Carson’s questions. Because of this, Carson had to stick to the script that his staff gave him. If he asked a question out of order, Hope would answer a different question. Regardless of this frustration, he kept coming on the show, putting his ailing senses on display for the national TV audience. Carson became so angry with this incompetence that one of his writers recall him saying after one of the shows that, “If I ever end up like that, I want you to shoot me.”
Frank Sinatra’s Favor
In 1981, Ronald Reagan had his Inaugural Gala where Carson reluctantly agreed to be the host because his friend Frank Sinatra asked him to. This was considered a “personal favor”, meaning if Carson denied it, Sinatra would take it as a personal insult Eventually, he agreed but he was not happy with how the event panned out. When he found out the request had instead come from Reagan, he said “Ronnie does know that I answered my country’s call once already, doesn’t he?” referencing his service in the Navy during World War II. The host was absolutely miserable at the event and took every chance he could to speak awfully about Sinatra behind his back. His final straw was when Dean Marin showed up drunk so he refused to introduce him.
A Night With Johnny
In 2014, there was rumors that a sex tape was making it’s rounds of Carson. The tape had reportedly been recorded with one of his wives. The tape was taken during Johnny’s younger years and the tape had been offered to his estate by TMZ who refused to purchase it and said if it was released, they would sue. For legal reasons, the seller could only offer it to private collectors and not companies, and so it was ultimately bought. You are still probably able to find stills of the tape around the web.
Although today, it’s not unheard of to make fun of politics, back in the 80’s this was taboo. Johnny Carson had a major effect on Gary Hart’s running against Michael Dukakis for the democratic ticket. However, he later dropped out due to an affair. He was pictured with a woman named Donna Rice on a boat trip. Of course, when Johnny and other hosts caught wind of this, they relentlessly poked fun at him. It was due to his unwanted publicity that led him to dropping out from the run.
Out Of Their Time
During Cosby’s interview with Carson, many young viewers tuned out due to the hysteria for the singer Morissey, who was at the top of his fame. It was obvious that the two struggled throughout the duration of the show, and even Cosby tried to change his stand-up to suit the crowd. Both men were annoyed by the “youth” at the time.
There were many rumors that circulated over the years that involve Carson being involved in sexual harassment scandals with women who worked on the show, and guests of the show. No law suits ever came to light, but this could be a result of the great lawyers that Johnny had hired. Since his death, many of his former guests have spoken publicly about their encounters with him.
Octopus and Guppy
Most recently, legendary actress, Sally Field appeared on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen and spoke about her dealings with Carson. She described their relationship as….well weird. When asked why, she would describe it as, “The octopus and the reluctant little guppy.” When she described him as an octopus, it meant that he was “all hands” with her. While it was claimed that they did date at one point, she said she was never actually interested in him but didn’t know how to turn him down. Sally went on to say that she figured out only a singular way to turn people down, or get out of these situations. She would tell people she “had lost her mind.” She said, “I told him I was having a breakdown and being sent away. I couldn’t figure out how just to say I’m really just not into this. I’m so sorry. I have to go away. They’re putting me in home.” Although there’s some sort of hilarity to it, it’s upsetting that this was the only way to get rid of his advances.
It Was Carson’s Game
The Tonight Show was the most profitable series on the small screen during the 1970s. Each year, NBC was pulling in between $50 and $60 million from the show. (Equivalent to $180 million and $220 million in recent dollars). It was during this time that Carson was responsible for scheduling reruns, which were given the name, The Best of Carson. If Johnny didn’t get his way, he threatened to change networks. In 1980, he was in charge of length of the show, and told the network he would retire if he wasn’t given what he asked for.
Carson Was Responsible For SNL
When NBC was forced to give into his demands for a shorter work week, they came up with the idea of Saturday Night Live to gill in the Saturday night slots. To this day, the show is incredibly successful and is on season 42. The network also shortened the length of the show from 90 minutes to 60 minutes. The final 90-minute show aired on September 12, 1980. Carson believed that shortening the show would make it move at a quicker pace and would allow them to make a better selection of guests.
His First Episode Is Lost Forever
Most of the early episodes from the show are gone forever. Networks would wipe the episodes and reuse the tapes to record other shows, which was common procedure during this time. Carson had no problem with this and even joked that the network should, “make guitar picks” out of the old episodes because there was no value in them. There is no known footage of his first broadcast. However, on October 1st, 1962, he was introduced by Groucho Marx, and there is a photo and audio recording of the introduction and Carson’s first monologue. The oldest black and white recording that exists is dated November 1962, and the oldest color recording is from April 1964.
Although Carson wasn’t known for being sentimental, that is exactly how he would be described during his last interviews. He told his crew that he had made the decision to retire because he wanted to go out while he was still on top. He told his crew, “Everything comes to an end; nothing lasts forever. Thirty years is enough. It’s time to get out while you’re still working on top of your game, while you’re still working well. On his second to last show, he received a two-minute standing ovation from the audience. His guests at the time were Robin Williams and Bette Middler. In fact, Bette Midler describes this appearance as one of the most emotional moments of her life. Fifty million viewers tuned into his final show on May 22nd, 1992. The last episode featured him sitting on a stool center stage, and told the audience and viewers that he was one of the luckiest people in the world. He said in his last words, “I found something I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the people who’ve shared this stage with me for thirty years. Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and you people watching. I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you.”